Mad Dash through Southern England

Trip Start Oct 24, 2009
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What I did
Roman Baths Museum
Read my review - 5/5 stars
House of Minerva Chocolate Masters

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Saturday, May 5, 2012 was a long, exhausting day devoted to flying to England, touring England, and preparing to leave England. Yep, an entire day just for England.Well, we’d all been to England multiple times already. This hypersonic holiday was actually my third journeyinto the land of the Beatles, Big Ben, and red busses, and I was the low man on the totem pole in terms of experience in Britain. Each of my travel partners had
been a minimum of four times, with the exception of Alicia, who was hitherto a tenderfoot in the land that gifted the world Shakespeare and the Spice Girls.As usual, we were set to depart from Frankfurt-Hahn airport at silly o’clock in the morning. The five of us met the evening prior at the Economotel (something like that) near the airport in order to avoid waking up at 3:00a.m. The prospect of arising at the refreshing
hour of 4:15a.m., as we did, was certainly worth the extra money we spent for the room. I had a very difficult time falling asleep, and as a result, on got about two hours of shuteye.  Nonetheless, the next day was holiday, not a day at the office, so I had nothing to complain
about.Tracy is brilliant when it comes to scheduling activities when we travel. We had a tour paid for and set to depart from London’s Victoria Station at 9:00 that morning. In order to arrive
on time and get on the tour bus, there could be no miscues. The flight had to arrive on time at 6:45 (it did); we had to find the Terravision bus from Stansted airport to Victoria station, set to go at 7:15 (we did); the bus had to pull into the station on time at 8:30 (it did); and we had to find our particular tour group among the throngs of other groups in Victoria (and we did). And all this we had to perform in a zombie-like state of sleep deprivation.I must admit that I was much more of a zombie than Tracy. She kept us on schedule, asked the right people the right questions, and ensured we stayed on track. As usual, I tried to keep up and help out, but Tracy, the human compass, was always a step ahead. Typically, I don’t write schedules for myself with blocks of time fit as tightly and perfectly as the stones of Machu Pichu. It’s not worth the stress to me. Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast…all but Tracy, that is.I learned from our Evan Evans tour guide that hot beverages were not allowed on the bus. That was really a shame. I needed some coffee in a bad way. Alas, I had to abandon my comfort drink and board empty handed. Our tour included Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and the
ancient Roman baths of Bath – a lot to do in one day, but do we did.Our tour guide, a middle-aged, slightly plump and pleasant woman with blonde hair and a slightly nervous disposition, did an adequate job from start to finish. The trivial knowledge she provided along the way was extremely interesting. Her wit, however, was underwhelming.
Most of her jokes fell just short of the standard of pithy, practiced nonchalance of British humor that I enjoy so much. Let’s focus on the positive, though.  As we rolled west toward Windsor
Castle, our guide narrated to us what we were seeing. She explained to us why the scenery and the housing were getting nicer the farther west we went.I have heard the Pet Shop Boys’ song “West End Girls” countless times. It’s a good song. I never bothered to investigate the significance of East End and West End, though. According to our guide’s account, as London became industrialized and the pollution and stench increasingly became a problem, the more affluent members of society moved west
of London. The reason for the westward movement (as opposed to eastward) is that London receives an ocean breeze from the Celtic Sea, right through Bristol (a note on Bristol and its inhabitants below). Moving west meant moving upwind of the foul odors that plagued London. For this reason, West End is associated with money, while the east end is more of a blue-collar area.                I’m not sure how long it took us to get to Windsor Castle – I was asleep much of
the way. Whatever the length of the journey, it was well worth it. Windsor Castle is incredible, and justified in its international fame. Built by William I, the first Norman king, the victorious leader of the (in)famous Battle of Hastings of 1066, the castle has been continuously inhabited by the English monarchy from its construction to the present. Queen Elizabeth II is said to adore Windsor Castle, and spends many of her weekends there. She was present (or at least a member of the royal family was) while we visited. We knew because the Royal Standard (the smaller version) was flying.                From the time we received our entrance tickets, we had less than two hours to tour
the grounds. Not nearly enough time! Tracy and I listened to our audio guide (good quality narration, for whom it may be of interest) as we entered, saw some of the 3-to-4-meters-thick defensive walls, the Royal Standard adorning the castle’s central tower, and St. George’s Gate. We stopped shortly afterward to watch the changing of the guard. We’d seen this elsewhere, but it it’s always fun to watch the formality of the ceremony, and listen to the
red-uniformed director of the process scream orders at his underlings.  As entertaining as this was, it all took up more time than I would have wished to spend.                Our next stop was St. George’s Chapel, which, not coincidently, was right next to
the changing of the guard ceremony. It is neither a coincidence that the final photo I took at Windsor Castle is of the changing of the guard. Photography is not allowed in St. George’s, and I scarcely even though about my camera during the sprint through the Royal Chambers and Queen Mary’s Doll House room. We simply didn’t have enough time. With most of our hour and three quarters expired, the clock was running. Touring the rest of the castle felt more like
running a 5K than an invaluable cultural experience, and my annoyance grew with every suit of armor or Rembrandt painting I jogged by. I even put my swollen bladder on hold in order to catch sidelong blurry impressions of other astounding historical items of England’s medieval past.                On the way back to the bus now, indignation mounting, my thoughts now turned
toward finding the toilets.  “Can you hold it?” Tracy asked. “We’re gonna be late, and they might leave without us.”                Not an unreasonable request, really; but in my state, the idea of holding it for
god knew how long until we reached Stonehenge (would there be toilets at Stonehenge?!!) nudged me to the edge of the precipice. I had to go and that was all there was to it. “God!” I exclaimed angrily as I continued to walk. “I don’t have time for anything! There was so much I wanted to stop and see, so much important stuff that I wanted to read about and appreciate!” I was starting to rant. “I didn’t even know what the hell I was looking at half the time! And now I don’t even have time to go to the bathroom!”                My annoyance had just rounded anger and was galloping toward ire, and I think
Tracy knew it. The times I lose sense of myself, few and far between though they are, I always regret. “Look,” Tracy said as she pointed at a sign on a stone column, “WC. Go. Run!”                Truly, to say we didn’t have much time would be an understatement. I started to run in the direction of the WC, but for two reasons quickly slowed to a walk. I have a tendency to miss what I’m looking for when I run. That was my pretext for slowing down. The real reason was that I was mad and mulish. On the way to Stonehenge, I idly wondered, “How many Windsor Castle tour busses have been missed because of intractable men?” A silly meditation; I knew it even then as I was nodding off again. When I awoke – and I have no idea how much later that was – we were at Stonehenge.                Stonehenge was about what I thought it would be. I’m happy I got to experience it,  and learn more about it while listening to the audio guide, but it was never on my “must do” list of European travels. For some decades now, visitors to Stonehenge have been prohibited to touch the prehistoric monument. After suffering considerable wear and damage from tourists desiring to chip off a piece of history for themselves, direct access to Stonehenge was cut off. Instead, there is now a circular path which visitors must follow to see the enigmatic stone circle.                Tracy and I walked along the grassy trail in the middle of a vast, green, sheep-dotted field, and took in this world-famous mysterious construction. I listened sporadically to my audio guide, but found it difficult to pay full attention. Because of, again, time constraints, our gait outpaced the narration, so I was never sure what I was supposed to be looking for. Tracy and
I took each other’s picture in front of Stonehenge, though, and then we asked a passerby to take a photo of the both of us.                Because Tracy is Tracy, she had to visit the gift shop. Yes, we left the Stonehenge
grounds so that we could browse refrigerator magnets and t-shirts with bearing the likeness of Stonehenge. We had a very few minutes to purchase a souvenir and make a run for the tour bus. I held a place in line while Tracy shopped. When I was released, I jogged to the bus to delay its departure to the best of my ability. Once again, we were able to board before the impatient driver and guide decided to depart, but just barely. It is worth mentioning here that two
people were left behind at Windsor Castle, and at least another two at Stonehenge. I wonder how they got back to London.                I stayed awake for much of the drive to Bath. I was excited for this one. Bath is
the location of England’s (the UK’s?) only geothermal spring.  The Romans had taken advantage of it for a popular pastime of the Empire’s elite: social bathing. Almost every Roman city
had a bathhouse with a thermae (i.e. natural hot spring).  They were a place where one went to be seen, a country club of sorts that few had access to. It was exhilarating to me to walk
amongst the remainsThe tour was disappointingly hurried, as we were again on a strict schedule. Though I had my audio guide, which was included in the price of admission of the tour, I found myself
hard-pressed to pay attention as I like to. I was already nervous about being left behind by the tour group, and was not wearing a time piece to help me pace myself (I tend to get caught up in historical narratives, spaces, and places, and lose track of time). My only recourse was to keep an eye on Tracy, DeAnna, Andrew, and/or Alicia in order to not be late to the bus. I did learn a good deal about Roman bathing practices and thermae, however. The museum and grounds
are excellently maintained and presented, and one even has the chance to try (yes, drink) the spring waters after treatment. I regret having not done so.The group and I were out of the museum and bath a solid 20 minutes before the deadline. I had the chance then to find a chocolate store that the bus driver had mentioned. The House of Minerva is the name of this chocolate boutique, and I recommend it highly. I
bought a small assortment of chocolates to share with Tracy before we boarded the bus again to return to London.  As we neared London’s Victoria Station, we saw Dustin Hoffman walking along the sidewalk. Yes, it really was Dustin Hoffman.  Indian food was on the menu for dinner.That evening, the five of us took a bus to Stansted Airport, from where we took a cab to our nearby hotel.  I don’t remember the name of the place, but it was nice. I wish I could review it for the site, but alas. We only got a few hours of sleep before arising to catch an early flight back to Germany, and thus concludes our mad dash through southern England.

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